I was recently in an indoor rock climbing and bouldering gym and started thinking about whether rock climbing can build muscle. When I go to a rock climbing gym, I often see many lean people with well-defined muscles. And I find it uncommon to see a regular climber who is either overweight or as muscular as a bodybuilder.
The lingering question in my head is: will regular rock climbing be enough to build big muscles? So I did a little research combined with what I learned from my personal experiences. Rock climbing is an intense workout that requires your body to burn a lot of calories. Yes, you can build muscle mass but your size will depend on your diet.
Let us look into what that means and what you need to do about it.
The Physique of an Average Rock Climber
You might be wondering what you might look like after frequent rock climbing. And a practical way to know that is to observe its practitioners. For that reason, we will be reviewing the physique of an average intermediate climber.
Intermediate climbers are people with skills to ascend climb routes graded between 6a+ to 7a+. (Read How hard is rock climbing? if you want to know more about the different levels of rock climbing.)
The average rock climber has a lean physique with highly defined muscles and low fat percentage. They might look skinny (like an ectomorph) when you see them resting. But it will surprise you to see how defined their back, forearms, thighs and calves are when they climb. This is especially obvious when they climb topless (or wearing a sports bra for girls). The fingers and hands of an average rock climber are also thicker compared to that of an average person. Hand skin and muscle become thicker when you use them for rock climbing.
The goal of climbing is to move your body mass from the ground to the top of the climb route. And because of this goal, the body of a climber will naturally prefer to adapt itself to a high strength to weight ratio build. The muscles developed in rock climbing are functional and not just for display. Another fact you might find interesting is that your average climber most likely has a six pack. Yes, the elusive and sexy six pack that almost everyone dreams of having! Excited to commit to rock climbing already?
We’ve discussed the good things about the climber’s physique. And now, we’ll talk about the bad things that might develop after rock climbing for some time.
Rock climbing uses more “pull muscles” than “push muscles”. This could result to a condition called muscle imbalance. One of the most visible effects of muscle imbalance is the “climber’s hunch”. Luckily, it is easy to counter these bad effects by training the antagonistic muscles of your upper body.
Energy Expenditure in Rock Climbing
We are going to be a bit more scientific in this section but I promise to simplify it for you for easier understanding. We will skip the concepts of BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) and RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate) to simplify the explanation.
Let us discuss the concept of “metabolic equivalent” or MET. Every living creature expends energy at any given time. You spend energy when you are sitting, walking, going to work, exercising and even in your sleep. Of course, people have different weight and would thus have varying amounts of energy expenditure on the same type of activity.
The interesting thing about MET is that it is the rate at which you spend energy relative to your weight. Everyone will have roughly the same MET for a specific activity. You can use this MET to calculate how much energy you burn depending on your weight and duration of the activity.
Okay, so how does this actually look like?
Energy Expenditure = MET x Weight x Duration of activity
Let’s start with an example. Suppose that we have a rock climber friend named John Wick who weighs 60 kg. We want to compute the energy expenditure of John if he rested for 24 hours. Resting has a MET of 1.
Resting Energy Expenditure = 1 MET x 60 kg x 24 hrs = 1440 Food Calories
I reviewed a few science journals to find the energy expenditure in rock climbing. In it, the authors found that rock climbing has an average of 8.4 to 9.0 MET for terrain steepness of 80 to 102 degrees. This means that you consume around 9 times the amount of energy compared to when you are resting.
Now, let’s still use our friend John Wick as an example. How much energy will John Wick spend for 2 hours of climbing? How about 3 hours of climbing?
Climbing Energy Expenditure (2 hrs) = 9 MET x 60 kg x 2 hrs = 1080 Food Calories
Climbing Energy Expenditure (3 hrs) = 9 MET x 60 kg x 3 hrs = 1620 Food Calories
Use the examples above to compute your expected energy expenditure based on your weight and target active rock climbing time.
Your Climbing Energy Expenditure = 9 MET x Your Weight x Climbing Duration
Build Muscle Mass with Rock Climbing
The oversimplified explanation to build muscle is:
Gains = Food Calories – Energy Expenditure
When I started to measure my weight before and after rock climbing, I was shocked to find out that I lost between 1 kg to 1.5 kg every time I climbed. Full disclosure: I am an ectomorph and therefore tend to have a hard time building muscle mass. To simplify things, think of my MET for rock climbing as 10 to 11 instead of 8.4 to 9.
By default, it is easy to lose weight with regular climbing due to its energy expenditure. And the natural tendency for your body will be to shred the fats and develop lean muscle.
So how do we apply the equations we’ve learned so far to build muscle?
Let’s do another exercise and compute how much energy does our friend John Wick spend in a day. Suppose that he climbs for 2 hours, rests for 14 hours, and does his job for 8 hours. For simplicity, let’s say that his office job has a 2 MET. How much food calories does John Wick need just to maintain his current weight?
Climbing Energy Expenditure = 9 MET x 60 kg x 2 hrs = 1080 Food Calories
Resting Energy Expenditure = 1 MET x 60 kg x 14 hrs = 840 Food Calories
Job Energy Expenditure = 2 MET x 60 kg x 8 hrs = 960 Food Calories
Total Energy Expenditure = 1080 + 840 + 860 = 2780 Food Calories
Our friend John Wick will have to eat 2780 food calories on days he climb just to maintain his current weight! Any less and he will be losing mass already. If he wishes to gain muscle mass then he will definitely need to increase how much he eats.
Using the example above, compute for your own expected energy expenditure so that you will have an idea of how much you’ll have to adjust your diet. Take note that not all Calories are equal. Consuming too much sugar all throughout the day will build mass but it will be more fat than muscle. (And we both know that you don’t want that, right?)
Rock climbing already covers a full workout for your lower body, upper body and core. If you are an endomorph, then you just need to climb regularly and make sure that you aren’t eating too much. For ectomorphs like me, all you need to do is eat more calories than you spend. I personally increased the amount of carbohydrates I eat especially on days that I climb. The result is that I have been seeing a steady increase in lean mass of 500 g to 1 kg per week.
If you are interested in learning more about how to build muscle and my training plan for rock climbing, then you can click on the links below:
- 10 Best Indoor Leg Exercises for Rock Climbing Beginners
- Rock Climbing Gym Drills: 10 Awesome Leg Workouts for Beginners
- Rock Climbing: 20 Rad Upper Body Home Workouts for Beginners
Rock climbing burns a lot of calories. If you want to build muscle mass, then you’ll need to consume more calories than you burn. You will never build muscle mass if you aren’t eating enough food for the energy demands of your activities.
If you want quality muscle mass, then you need to be specific with what food you consume. You will have to measure the proper ratio of carbohydrates, protein and fats you need for your own body. For an ectomorph like me, the general rule of thumb that I follow is to eat significantly more carbohydrates on days that I climb.
Based on the knowledge we’ve learned so far, you’ll build muscle with rock climbing combined with proper diet. The muscles that you will build as a rock climber won’t be as big as that of a body builder. But because of the full body workout of rock climbing, you’ll most likely have a sexy well-toned build. And aside from that side effect, it is easy to be consistent with climbing because it is fun to do!
I hope this article was helpful to you! You can also read how I spent my 20 hours of active rock climbing time and use it as a guide. If you enjoyed reading this, then share it to your friends! And if you enjoy reading more content like this, then subscribe to my mailing list. Have fun rock climbing! Be good at anything fast and be a rad rookie! 🙂